Sunday, December 7, 2014

I Feel Pretty - The Musical Side of Beauty

Keeping with last week's theme...

Movies have also taught us that glamorizing oneself is part of the fun of womanhood. Being a musical-lover, I can think of several films in which young women joyfully sing about the benefits of being a female--and a beautiful one at that. 

Here are three that come to mind:

West Side Story (1961) - "I Feel Pretty"
 


Flower Drum Song (1961) - "I Enjoy Being a Girl 




Bye Bye Birdie (1963) - "How Lovely To Be a Woman" 





I love these songs and felt compelled to post the videos, so--if nothing else--I can go back and listen to them. I have been known to hum (or, err, belt out) a couple of the above songs as I get ready to step out for an evening. I may even be guilty of feeling some of the songs' sentiments. As a mom and teacher, the opportunity to get dressed up comes along once in a blue moon. When it does, I enjoy "being a girl" and glamorizing myself. Well...somewhat glamorizing--how can I compare to the lovely Natalie Wood, Nancy Kwan, or Ann-Margaret? Yep, I enjoy the whole process--the hair, the make-up, the hours of searching websites beforehand for the perfect vintage dress, the matching shoes and purse.

It all seems relatively harmless. The films from last week are quite frank in telling women: hurt thyself and you shall achieve great beauty. Eat next to nothing, exercise until you can't stand it, compress yourself until you can no longer breathe. Nowadays, the message is much more subtle. Think photoshopped images, for instance, portrayed as real women. We do the rest in our self-comparison. 

This week's roster, which consists of stage-to-film productions that were originally written in the late fifties, shows the message morph as budding women celebrate the process of becoming beautiful:

I am proud that my silhouette is curvy,
That I walk with a sweet and girlsish gait
With my hips kind of swivelly and swervy.
~Flower Drum Song
or
When I have a brand new hairdo
With my eyelashes all in curl,
I float as the clouds on air do,
I enjoy being a girl!
~Flower Drum Song
or
How lovely to wear mascara
And smile a woman's smile.
How lovely to have a figure
That's round instead of flat.
~Bye Bye Birdie
or
It's wonderful to feel
The way a woman feels;
It gives you such a glow just to know
You're wearing lipstick and heels!
~Bye Bye Birdie

In other words: Rejoice! Think not pain, but the joy of being a female! Today, pretty princesses with unrealistic dimensions are said to have the same effect on our girls. Check out "Here's What Disney Princesses Would Look Like With Normal Waistlines." 

There are a few more messages slipped into the lyrics as well:  
I'm strictly a female female
And my future I hope will be
In the home of a brave and free male
Who'll enjoy being a guy having a girl like me.
~Flower Drum Song
(Note the ownership connotation of "having.")
and
How lovely to be a woman
And have one job to do;
To pick out a boy and train him
And then when you are through,
You've made him the man you want him to be!
~Bye Bye Birdie
and
How lovely to be a woman
And change from boys to men.
~Bye Bye Birdie
or
When I hear the compliment'ry whistle
That greets my bikini by the sea,
I turn and I glower and I bristle,
But I'm happy to know the whistle's meant for me!
~Flower Drum Song
and
Whenever you hear boys whistle,
You're what they're whistling at.
~Bye Bye Birdie 
(Note the object connotation of "what" as opposed to "whom.") 
So are the lyrics harmless, good fun? About this, I am conflicted. I love the songs too much--their gaiety, word choice and rhyme--to condemn them. And after all, many of us have survived without extensive harm. 

Then my conscious reminds me of the women who did not get by without harm. Any woman who has battled an eating disorder, or stayed in a bad relationship because she thought she could change the man, or was the victim of unwanted advances because the man thought 'no' meant 'yes.' I am not suggesting these songs in and of themselves are dangerous; rather it is the culture of which they are a part and to which they have contributed that has done the damage. 

I am still not willing to throw out the baby with the bathwater. There remains a celebration of womanhood at each song's core. However, we need to ensure we are having meaningful conversations with the upcoming generation, our daughters and sons, as we introduce them to the lyrics and movies with messages about beauty--just as we would explain that the blackface routine in Holiday Inn is not acceptable and why people ever thought it was. It can be as simple as what my mom would say: 
Don't ever think you can change a man; whomever you choose will probably get worse over time, so pick a good one to begin with.
Thank you, mom! (And I did.) 

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